By Sarah Kueter-
More than sixty years after her death, Frida Kahlo remains a recognisable and iconic figure across the world. Arguably, she only reached genuine fame after her death, having spent most of her life overshadowed by her lover and fellow artist Diego Rivera. Following her death in 1954, Kahlo’s work continued to gain traction amongst left-wing political circles both in and outside her home of Mexico City. Kahlo’s work is often instantly recognisable; the surrealist art featured prominent inspiration from indigenous Mexican clothing to compositions of pain and suffering in order to reflect her experiences.
Although often celebrated for her surrealist style, Kahlo was uninterested in art labels. Instead, she saw her art as a way to express traumas experienced throughout her life. Her art frequently featured medical settings, which reflected the numerous medical procedures she had to endure throughout her life. Unable to have children and having suffered 2 miscarriages, Henry Ford Hospital was painted in a state of deep depression following a miscarriage during her time in Detroit.
“I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to.” - Frida Kahlo
Although Kahlo was able to show her art in a handful of exhibitions outside of Mexico, she remains an example of a non-Western artist that faced exclusion from significantly larger Western art circles due to her rejection of its status quo. As a member of the Mexican Communist Party since the age of 20, her work often came with deep-set political narratives which made reference to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and paid homage to Communist political figures. Her political ideology and national pride constituted numerous works that were critical of the United States, its associated capitalism and the expanding industries.
Mexican identity was an important part of Kahlo’s work and life. Her choices in composition predominately celebrated indigenous dresses and customs, and an overall simpler life. Her celebration of traditional Mexican customs would make her an important figure for Mexican native identity, particularly at a time of encroaching influence from the United States.
Her celebration of Mexican identity and customs was also political in nature. Dedicated to the revival of pre-Hispanic indigenous culture, Kahlo created works that celebrated both its culture and provided a strong representation of political affiliations with the Communist party. This deep-set political narrative in her work made her an important figure for native Mexican identity. By 1984, her work was declared a part of Mexican cultural heritage in order to prevent overseas purchase. A number of her works can now be found in various museums and galleries, often travelling in exhibitions. Within Mexico, much of her work remains in various museums, the most in-depth collection being in her childhood home, now turned into a museum dedicated to her.
Kahlo’s unique and iconic style in the art she created has also been easily recognised by many outside of Mexico. In contemporary society, she remains an iconic figure in Mexican culture and an embodiment of many feminist discourses. Her art and history, which includes personal possessions such as diaries and clothing, can now be found in an extensive number of cultural heritage institutions across the globe. Collections of these objects frequently travel between countries in temporary exhibitions in museums and galleries.
In an effort to increase the accessibility of these collections and the awareness of the partnering institutions, a digital collaboration was created by Google Arts and Culture in 2018. The collaboration between over 30 institutions is called the Faces of Frida collection and celebrates her life and works through a number of different online methods. Specifically, the collection attempts to categorise Kahlo’s turbulent life through numerous pieces across the world dedicated to her life and influences, and encapsulates numerous aspects of her life, ranging from her relationship with Diego Rivera to personal letters she had written. The virtual collaboration brings all these aspects together in one place, allowing for objects to complement information and additional knowledge created by another partnering museum. Kahlo’s well-known Blue House in Mexico City, for example, now offers users an interactive street tour of her home similar to Google Earth, which can be enjoyed at home.
In a period that continues to see lockdowns and closures in different parts of the world, digital exhibitions are now able to facilitate learning and interpretation without the need for a physical location. Besides this, they allow for diverse and wide-ranging collections across numerous institutions to come together, enabling visitors to see a collaboration that could not otherwise be possible in a physical space.
Living in an era where we use technologies on a daily basis, it’s unlikely Kahlo would ever have considered seeing her work shared online by one of the most powerful companies in the world. Viewing the work of a proponent of anti-capitalism and indigenous culture through this kind of medium is certainly something that is worth thinking about, particularly with the problem of commodification. One feature which garnered some criticism was the mobile app’s ability to overlay Kahlo’s classic flower headpiece and unibrow on users’ selfies.
As an artist who used her work as a way to celebrate simpler living as well as express painful experiences, projects such as Faces of Frida may endorse commodification, something that she distanced herself from. Her global popularity is something to be celebrated and she remains regarded as an iconic figure in Mexican culture and an embodiment of many feminist discourses, athough this has come with the commodification of her image on a massive scale. This also raises the question of why Kahlo is instantly recognisable to many? Is it because of the artwork she produced or is it a result of prominent features in her appearance and style now being printed on all types of objects? This is particularly problematic considering that her image has often been reworked to fit a Western-centric concept of beauty, something that Kahlo herself overtly rejected.
There is a difficult balance to find between the celebration and commodification of Kahlo’s life and work. However, it’s clear that learning the story behind her art offers not only interesting knowledge, but may help to counteract appropriations of her image by making the public aware that the meanings and motivations behind Kahlo’s images are significantly deeper than just aesthetic appreciation. The Faces of Frida project certainly offers an in-depth blend of education and entertainment, and also comes as a welcome addition to the website; particularly considering Google has received criticism in the past for failing to be inclusive of popular works outside of North America, Europe and Asia.
Havard, L.A., 2006. Frida Kahlo, Mexicanidad and Máscaras: The search for identity in postcolonial Mexico. Romance Studies, 24(3), pp.241-251.